The relationship between dogs and their owners is very similar to the bond between young kids and their parents, a new study revealed.

For approximately 15,000 years, pet dogs have been closely associated with people, the research, published in PLoS One explained.

“The animals are so well adapted to living with human beings that in many cases the owner replaces conspecifics and assumes the role of the dog’s main social partner,” according to the experts.

Dogs and children seem to share what is known as the “secure base effect”. This effect is seen in parent-child bonding as well as the bond between humans and dogs.

This refers to the idea that when human infants interact with the environment, they use their caregivers as a secure base.

Since this effect had not yet been closely observed in dogs, Lisa Horn, from the Vetmeduni’s Messerli Research Institute, Austria, and her colleagues set out to examine the behavior of dogs and their owners.

The reactions of the dogs were analyzed under 3 different conditions:

  • “absent owner”
  • “silent owner”
  • “encouraging owner”

In the experiment, the pets had to manipulate interactive dog toys and then earned a reward of food.

The investigators were surprised to see that the animals were a lot less eager to work for food when their owners were not present than when they were.

Whether the caregivers further motivated their dogs during the task or remained silent had little impact on the pets’ level of motivation.

Horn and her team conducted a follow-up experiment where they replaced the dogs’ owners with strangers.

Results showed that when the unfamiliar people were present, the animals barely interacted with them and were not much more concerned about trying to get the food reward than when the strangers were not there.

The dogs were much more motivated to get the food reward when their owner was there, making the researchers conclude that a caregiver’s presence is critical for a pet to act in a confident manner.

The authors said:

“The study provides the first evidence for the similarity between the “secure base effect” found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships. This striking parallel will be further investigated in direct comparative studies on dogs and children.”

Horn concluded:

“One of the things that really surprised us is, that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do. It will be really interesting to try to find out how this behavior evolved in the dogs with direct comparisons.”

A previous report showed that having a pet, particularly a dog, can reduce a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, while a different study indicated that having a pet dog can improve a person’s physical and mental health more than having a cat.

Written by Sarah Glynn